Veteran trombonist Curtis Fuller has called Mavis “Swan” Poole “Little Ella,” a comparison to the great Ella Fitzgerald. It’s a great compliment, but Poole had different advice for students this week at a master class at North Carolina Central University.
“The first step in creating the music you want to make is total self-acceptance,” she said during the session in the B.N. Duke band room. It’s all right to learn and borrow from musicians you admire, “but it’s still you. Don’t lose yourself. Find where you fit in,” she said. Perfection is not the goal, and later in the session she had students repeat the sentence, “I am perfectly imperfect.”
Poole is one of the guest artists at the 27th NCCU Jazz Festival. The festival continues Friday and Saturday with concerts by vocalist Eve Cornelious and trombonist John Fedchock.
The session this week was a homecoming for Poole. Raised in Durham, she graduated from NCCU’s Jazz Studies Program with degrees in music education and jazz vocal studies. As she was speaking, she would interrupt herself to say hello to some of her former teachers — like Arnold George and others. She tried several times to get into the music school at NCCU but was rejected. The rejection made her focus more and the third time, a teacher listened and said, “I can work with it,” Poole said. “When I came here I didn’t know what a C major scale was. I didn’t know any theory,” she said. “I fell in love with the jazz idiom. I didn’t know who Ella Fitzgerald was. I didn’t know who Sarah Vaughan was,” but that changed as she became exposed to more music.
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Poole plays and performs as a solo artist (her album “Soul Understated” is on ReverbNation) and has sung with a wide array of musicians — Roy Hargrove, Gerri Allen, Curtis Fuller, 9th Wonder among many others. Poole has a master of arts degree from Queens College. She also teaches students from kindergarten through eighth grade in Harlem how to follow their passions through music.
She sang in church growing up, and when she came to NCCU she was singing in the gospel style. Ira Wiggins, director of the school’s jazz program, suggested she try another approach. But he did not try to change her completely. “I was able to stay true to who I was,” Poole said. She was “appreciated for what I brought to the table” without “being sculpted into something else.”
Poole stressed the importance of rigor and practice. Learning classical repertoire was an exercise in “toughing it out,” for her, but “the more these worlds [classical and jazz] intertwined, the more they made sense,” she said. “I was exposed to so much more than what I would have learned on my own,” Poole said. Their time in college is a chance to practice hard, and Poole encouraged students to take advantage of the time and opportunity they have “right now. ... If your practice sounds good, it’s not practice.” She told students to “max out on your instrument. What do you have to lose but time?”
“Hear yourself the way you want to sound,” Poole said. “Record yourself. Spend time with your instrument. ... Do that and you’ll polish your instrument.”
The next generation of jazz listeners and musicians is also important. “Somebody has to be true to it,” she said, and she encouraged students to teach and pass along lessons to the next generation. “Jazz found me, and jazz gave me a different home,” she said.
Wednesday, April 19: Faculty concert, 7 p.m., B.N. Duke Auditorium. Free
Friday, April 21: Eve Cornelious in concert, 8 p.m., B.N. Duke Auditorium. For tickets, call 919-530-5170.
Saturday, April 22: John Fedchock, trombone, in concert, 8 p.m., B.N. Duke Auditorium. For tickets, call 919-530-5170.